I have spent several hours now reading about the jobs situation for Humanities PhDs – yes, partly to keep from reading the book on Long and the Great Depression that I cracked open yesterday, but also because I’ve been suspecting lately that something fishy is going on with my post-grad-school employment opportunities. And if there are really no jobs, then surely there’s a better use of my time than preparing for jobs that don’t exist.
Plenty of other people have written eloquently on the actual numbers, so I’m not going to wander much into quantitative analysis, and anyway, my stats are kinda rusty. But let me say that even my (extremely) cursory research has me relieved: it looks like somewhere between a quarter and a third of history PhDs are still finding tenure-track jobs, and yes, there are many, many people adjuncting, but there are also people in government, the military, non-profits, the tech sector – lots of things that put research, writing, and teaching skills to good use. (This article from The Chronicle is probably the most hopeful thing I’ve read in a while, and it has charts!) In other words, considering that my background is in retail and trucking, grad school really is pretty likely to help me change careers.
Since I would rather like to buy a house in the next ten years, I’ve also been poking around in salary and cost of living information. The Chronicle has a lovely interactive piece on faculty salaries for more than 1200 universities, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wage data by county for a ton of occupations, and Zillow.com provides approximate housing cost data for everywhere I’ve ever searched (so, er, major cities in the US, anyway.) As a rule of thumb, I like to keep fixed costs (rent, bills, phone) to one two-week paycheck… and so after a little crunching for some of the occupations in the Chronicle article, I think that (in Austin, anyway) most of these professions would put me in house-buying territory within the decade.
So far, so good. As long as I play my cards right, getting a PhD in the humanities is not a bad idea at all – it’s actually a pretty good way to get an interesting job and haul my ass up into the middle class.
Playing my cards right, though, is the part that’s still a bit baffling, because I don’t quite understand what’s going on here. As I read through a few “post-ac” blogs and gloom-and-doom employment predictions, a few patterns stand out: people who are staking their whole identity on getting a tenure-track job, people who are afraid to talk about non-academic career paths lest they be shunned or kicked out of their programs, people who feel cheated by the system when they don’t get their dream job at a prestigious university, people who need support groups to help them down from the ivory tower. Maybe I’ll feel this way in a few years, but right now, these people read like the lost souls in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch, stuck in some kind of unemployment purgatory. Or, perhaps more aptly, like disgraced and brainwashed members of a secret cult. And for the record, I’ve been the latter, and good lord I don’t want to go back.
I hope there is room in this system for people who just want normal things like job security, an interesting career, and enough money to make a comfortable living. And I hope these disgruntled folks are the exception rather than the rule, because I, for one, would like to think this whole shindig is about opening options up, not closing them off.